By Kai Williams
This piece was originally selected as an honorable mention for the New York Times 2017 Modern Love College Essay Contest.
I was holding his head in my lap when he broke the news that he wanted to start seeing another girl. Except, he did not tell me he wanted to start seeing another girl: he relayed to me how he’d explained to the girl that there was another in his life. He smiled sheepishly when I asked him what he’d spoken to his friend about and answered, “I told her that if we were going to start seeing each other, she has to know about my nigga.”
“Oh.” I managed, as the words untangled in my mind, reconfiguring to form a reflection of myself; he’s talking about you. “So you like her?”
Sitting up, he responded, “I do,” and leveled his eyes to meet mine. He did this when I might begin to panic or unravel. Some of the first nights we’d spent together, before we knew each other’s middle names, he’d held me while I navigated my anxiety attacks. “But in no way whatsoever does it change my feelings for you or mean that I don’t want to be with you.”
I met Kayode in our African-American theater class, a place where he casually shined, flashing his verbose and vibrant knowledge of the black artistic experience weekly. About three weeks into September we were staying up until 4 AM in the dining hall discussing revolution. The first time we slept together, I went home singing Aretha Franklin and feeling that something vital had been restored. My friends pronounced him perfect in nearly every way, especially after reading a text I’d screenshotted wherein he’d proclaimed his intention to end misogynoir by squaring up against any man who failed to uphold the romantic value of black women. A poet to his bones, he liked to list everything I reminded him of, including, but not limited to; Helen of Troy, the ocean I was named for, light coming through the pink clouds as we walked back to my dorm room. “You’re dragging it, my guy,” I would roll my eyes at him. He named the playlist he’d made for me “sunshine and sea foam” because that’s what waking up to me felt like to him. I named his playlist “blessings” because I could not conceive of a reality wherein he caused me harm. We argued playfully over geography; he was from Brooklyn, I repped the Bronx, but we shared a fundamental appreciation for having come from the same place.
Love was in the room the first time we stayed awake through the night together. From the beginning of our exploration of one another, love was prominent. It took us about a month to verbally acknowledge its presence, but I believe that both of us knew almost immediately after we began interacting that loving would come naturally to us. But I had just broken up with my boyfriend of four years and felt I needed to be independent. The first time Kayode expressed his capacity to love me, I couldn’t return his gaze. I told him that I had love for him, but that I couldn’t be in love with him. He replied, “That hurts because I think I could be in love with you, but I understand.” Although he seemed to accept the situation, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. So when he told me, months later, that he wanted to begin exploring a relationship with another girl simultaneously, I told him, “As long as you’re happy and it doesn’t change your feelings for me, I’m happy.”
My mother doubted me immediately. “We are monogamous people,” she warned me over the phone, “eventually, he is going to have to choose someone.” But I wanted to rise to the occasion. On one hand, I felt confident in my maturity. An open relationship seemed very adult. I wanted to be able to liberate my feelings from what I perceived to be a social construct of monogamy that was based on dynamics of possession that I didn’t need to ascribe to. My last relationship positioned me in a “jealous girlfriend” role that I felt resigned to and greatly exaggerated. After my first boyfriend cheated on me I carefully monitored his friendly interaction with girls I believed had crushes on him and insisted he promote our relationship on social media. I was not proud of my paranoia, and so I welcomed the opportunity to prove to myself that I could prioritize happiness, not possession, above all.
On the other hand, I believed blindly in the strength of the love between us. I envisioned us as two black revolutionaries, artists, who generated solutions through mere conversation. We couldn’t speak for longer than an hour without producing some artistic concept or other. He wanted to write a play based on Yoruban myths wherein I would sing in prose. I had never filled a notebook in under two months until I met him. For Christmas I bought him a notebook and in the letter I quoted Patti Smith, speaking of Robert Mapplethorpe: “We wanted, it seemed, what we already had. A lover and a friend to create with. To be loyal, yet be free.”
And that was what we hoped the open relationship would grant us: freedom from convention. This was a refusal to have love limited by tradition. His grand idea of romance was something that could be distributed evenly yet uniquely to multiple people, without it necessarily garnering resentment or insecurity. Reading bell hooks (the copy that I’d given him) had made him believe in a love wherein multiple parties could be equally met.
However, as time passed, my mother’s predictions became increasingly accurate. I accrued jealousy rapidly. One day, a friend of mine who was dating his roommate told me that he had stumbled in early in the morning, which explained why I hadn’t been able to get in touch with him that night. That knowledge sent me spiraling into anxiety. I wondered how he had room in his mind for all of his thoughts to be occupied by me and by her simultaneously. How did he split his time? I would count up milestones as though his feelings could measured in something quantifiable, like how many nights out of the week he spent with me versus with her. I relished the fact that we lived in the same city, and that over winter break I could see him in person while she waited across the country. It bothered me that she was white. This was the same boy who asserted the beauty of black womanhood on the daily, who lead our class discussion on Dutchman with such feverish vigor one might sense a semblance of Baraka in his spirit. This boy took pride in calling me “his nigga.” I wondered if he would begin to fantasize about marrying her, and, if so, would he also position the two of them in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the presence of white people set his teeth on edge? Would she ever slip up and call his ancestors “slaves” instead of “enslaved africans?” These questions haunted me as I fell deeper in love with him. Losing him made me aware of how much I wanted him.
Over winter break, I gathered my courage and expressed my discomfort with his other relationship. Looking as though he was being forced to reveal a secret, he said, “I couldn’t not be with Marnie.” I asked him “Do you love me?” He said, “Yes, but I don’t think I am in love with you.” Pushing through the rising panic and pain, I pressed him, “Are you in love with her?” And he met my gaze and said, “Yes, I think I am.” Even though these words short-circuited my hope, we would continue to have intense conversations about our romance throughout the coming weeks. One night, after I expressed my incessant worry that he would soon be asked to give me up, he responded firmly, pointing at the center of his chest, “You live here. With me. I carry you. When I decide on something, I decide on it. I will always love you this much. No matter who I’m with. No matter who you’re with. There is no giving you up.” These words delicately undid the bulk of my strife, even in spite of the growing doubt. I trusted them, and him.
Weeks later, he sat me down and told me he was going to begin dating her exclusively.
Kayode was entirely bewildered as to why his new relationship had to change the core structure of our interactions. “The only difference is that we aren’t having sex,” he kept repeating, “is it that important to you?”
Disbelieving, I challenged him, “so you’re saying you still have romantic feelings for me?”
“Yes, and I always will,” he said.
“Even while you’re with her?”
“Obviously I can refrain from acting on them. I don’t love you any less. I’m moving strictly on instinct. And my instinct is that that this is the right decision.” He tried to walk me through his reasoning. Love was an act, a verb. He could still care for me, could hold me through the nights when my PTSD returned, could still write the music I inspired. My laughter reminded him of that Neruda poem, and he used that as evidence for why we should stay within each other’s lives. “I thought about this going many ways,” he admitted, “but I never imagined you as anything other than a central figure in my life. Since I met you, I can’t conceive of a day you aren’t with me.”
I could not conceive of way to be his friend. As much as I wanted to believe in his principles of receiving all love as a blessing, I could not accept the limited care and attention he wanted to give me. A love wherein he could put our romance on hold while he explored the one he shared with another girl and somehow I would still not feel like I’d been a placeholder. I wanted him to be in love with me in the focused, singular way I was in love with him. Despite the comfort I represented for him, the romance he assigned to my black womanhood, despite his faith in his ability to love me and be in love with her and have all of us feeling valued, he did not feel as deeply for me as I felt for him. I did not wish to possess him. There was simply no room for others within my love for him.
As he broke things off with me he said, “If you knew the kinds of dreams I had on the train after you first sent me your writing, you would think I’m insane. I imagined us in an apartment in Brooklyn. Braiding our daughter’s hair on my piano bench while you’re in the back bossing me around. Backseat driving. Like I’d never had braids before I met you.”
Our love was the subject of dreams for him, imagined far into the future. He meant to spin me tales of a future daughter, as though she were a possibility to be explored after he played out his present partnership. I tried to be open to loving without boundaries, thinking it a form of liberation. Instead, I found myself captivated by a person for whom I became a daydream. His conception of freedom was a love received and returned by all, in spite of challenges. My conception of freedom was a love flourishing between two black revolutionaries, impenetrable.
In the year since our relationship ended, I have often measured what I gained from the experience against the loss. And what I have gained is an understanding of my own capacity for courage. I entered our affair thinking that by controlling the extent of my relationship with him, I could also control the extent of my emotions. That did not turn out to be true. Then, I thought I could reconstruct my needs and desires to adequately receive the amount of care he was willing to give me, continuously shrinking to correspond with how that shifted over time. But when I realized I couldn't change how I felt simply by pretending or wishing that I didn’t feel that way, I dove. I leapt. Opening one's self up to emotional vulnerability is a risk. Submitting to love is a risk. Asking for love in the manifestation that you envision and desire it is a risk. It is an act of bravery. There was an equal chance of loss as well as gain. And I lost. I got lost. I got hurt. Yet, although this felt initially devastating, I am proud to have been able to assert what I wanted from our relationship and then to walk away when he was unwilling to supply it, in spite of his insistence that I continue to exist within his life, accepting any kind of love he felt comfortable giving me. Perhaps that is the beauty of belonging to a generation that possesses the gall to redefine traditional heteronormative relationship dynamics. Polyamorous relationships and open relationships work for some. For others, myself included, they do not. But being willing to navigate love—to discover how we can or cannot fit inside of it, what kind of affection we are able to accept and to know when and where we draw our own personal boundaries—that, in and of itself, is revolutionary.